The Methodological Foundations of Studying Negative Emotions in Biographical Research

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 16:15
Oral Presentation
Pamela ARONSON, University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA
Matthew FLEMING, University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA
Researchers face a dilemma when negative emotions emerge in biographical research. When they ask participants directly to reflect on difficult experiences, they risk provoking negative reactions or the mobilization of protective barriers. Alternatively, when researchers avoid direct questioning, they risk missing important information for understanding biographical decisions. Both of these approaches can create obstacles to meaningful disclosure and reflection. This paper will examine the methodological foundations of studying negative emotions and experiences in biographical research.

This research focuses on one particular emotion, regret, which is a negative assessment of an action committed or a path not taken. Biographical regret can be painful, as the actions (or inactions) have typically altered one’s life path in a negative or detrimental way. While experienced in many life spheres, we focus on education, a life domain that is one of the most common areas of regret. Our insights are based on an analysis of 204 in-depth interviews at a four-year public commuter university in Metropolitan Detroit, U.S..

We propose three methodological approaches when examining negative emotions in general, and the concept of biographical regret in particular. First, we argue that a comprehensive, highly structured, yet flexible interview guide is ideal in this circumstance. Second, we examine an interview question that assesses what respondents would change about their biographies. Finally, we examine an interview question that asks respondents what advice they would provide to someone in a situation similar to their own. These questions ask respondents to think about biographical regret from a positive, rather than a negative, standpoint. They encourage disclosure because they do not dwell on problems but instead focus on alternatives and solutions. These methodological foundations are effective at eliciting information in a meaningful and respectful way and can be incorporated into a variety of biographical studies where negative emotions emerge.